PHOENIX — A new state Senate committee made its debut July 15.
The Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Indian Affairs is designed as a joint undertaking between the state and the tribes. State Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado, said he launched the committee as a way to foster crucial relationships and open communication between tribal leaders and state government.
“There are 22 tribal communities in Arizona, and it’s essential that we bridge the gap between the tribes and state government so we can work together on some of Arizona’s prominent issues, such as Indian gaming and water rights,” Begay said. “This committee seeks to improve communications and build a sense of trust between Arizona’s tribal citizens, communities and governments.”
Tribal issues often cut across party lines, so with this in mind, the committee was formed with Democrats, Republicans and tribal leaders as members to ensure balanced views and perspectives.
“I want to thank the state Senate for establishing the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Indian Affairs and including tribal leaders. Today our discussions centered on Indian education, and I am hopeful that this is a new era of collaboration between the state of Arizona and Indian tribes. This will not only provide education and awareness, but a joint partnership on improving relations between governments,” said San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler,
During the first meeting, the committee received reports from the Arizona Department of Education on the status of Native American education, on the activities of the ADE Native American Advisory Council and from the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.
The committee also heard presentations regarding Native American Joint Technical Education District (JTED) program funding and the Indian School Bus Routes Maintenance Program. Representatives from the Goldwater Institute updated the committee on the status of the Indian Child Welfare Act lawsuit. Finally, the committee heard testimony from the public.
The next Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Indian Affairs will be in August.
Several indigenous leaders have officially asked President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline, citing concerns about consultation, treaty rights and impact on tribal homelands.
In his letter to Obama, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association chairman and Oglala Sioux Tribe president John Steele also requested a meeting with U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The association is among numerous indigenous leaders coming out against the pipeline, which would carry bituminous crude from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico for export.
“The Yankton are adamant about meeting with Secretary Jewell regarding the intrusion of our territory by Transcanada, as it is no small matter,” said Ihanktonwan/Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman Robert Flying Hawk in a statement from the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Our water rights, protection of our cultural resources and safety of our Oceti Sakowin children and families over ride any Congressional lobby influences by Big Oil. We stand strong with all the other leaders of the Oceti Sakowin and Indigenous peoples affected by tar sands.”
The Yankton Sioux are currently spearheading a challenge to the permit of TransCanada before the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, a process with hearings beginning in May.
The move is also backed by the Indigenous Environmental Network and other conservation groups.
“We stand in solidarity with our Oceti Sakowin relatives and encourage the Department of Interior to dissent from a KXL permit approval and give President Obama all the more reason to reject this dirty tar sands pipeline,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, in a statement. “We ask this for the benefit of the land, the water, our communities, our sacred sites, and the territorial integrity of the sacredness of Mother Earth.”
Debate is heating up over the Keystone XL pipeline, which when complete would stretch 1,700 miles from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico coast of Texas. As Obama mulls a final decision amid Congressional pressure to step up the pace, the southern leg of the pipeline is already built and operational, bringing oil from refineries in the Midwest to the Gulf for export.
Press release, December 3, 2014, National Congress of American Indians
WASHINGTON, DC – Vice President Joe Biden joined over 300 tribal leaders at the sixth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference today. At the opening of the conference, Vice President Biden delivered an impassioned speech about violence against women in Indian Country saying “The most horrific prison on earth is the four walls of an abused woman’s home. For far too many Native American women that is a daily reality.”
The Vice-President, who was the original author of the Violence Against Women Act and has been its most steadfast supporter over the past 20 years, was introduced by Councilwoman from the Tulalip Tribes , “Vice President Biden has led the movement to protect women against rape and domestic violence. Last year he helped pass the much needed protection to help Native women from violence. Mr. Vice President, you are correct when you say no means no — no more abuse.”
Referring to the provisions added to VAWA in 2013 that allow tribal governments to prosecute non-Indian domestic violence offenders in certain cases, the Vice-President apologized that it took so long to give tribal governments the tools to hold offenders accountable in their communities, saying “as long as there is a single place where the abuse of power is excused as a question of jurisdiction or tolerated as a family affair, no one is truly safe, and we cannot define ourselves as a society that is civilized.”
The Vice President delivered a call to action saying, “Tribal governments have an inherent right, as a matter of fact they have an obligation, to protect their people. All people deserve to live free of fear.” He urged all tribal governments to be prepared on March 7 when the law goes into effect to use their authority to aggressively prosecute domestic violence offenders. He stressed the need to change the culture that too often leaves victims asking what they did wrong and instead to focus on sending a strong message that violence against women is always unacceptable.
Vice President Biden also acknowledged that we have much more to do to protect Native women from violence including giving Alaska tribes the same authority and expanding the provision to cover sexual assault and other crimes. Biden called on Congress to appropriate the $25 million in grants authorized in VAWA 2013 to implement the new law.
Attorney General Eric Holder followed Vice President Biden, and strongly stated the Department of Justice’s commitment to improving law enforcement in Indian country, and to institutionalizing that commitment so that it will continue. He announced that he has implemented a Statement of Principles to guide the Department’s work with tribal nations into the future.
Attorney General Holder also announced a new initiative to promote compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act in partnership with the Departments of Interior and Health and Human Services. Holder stated that the initiative is “working to actively identify state-court cases where the United States can file briefs opposing the unnecessary and illegal removal of Indian children from their families and their tribal communities.” Holder went on to explain that DOJ will work with its partners and tribes to “to promote tribes’ authority to make placement decisions affecting tribal children; to gather information about where the Indian Child Welfare Act is being systematically violated; and to take appropriate, targeted action to ensure that the next generation of great tribal leaders can grow up in homes that are not only safe and loving, but also suffused with the proud traditions of Indian cultures.”
The last dam will be blasted out of the Elwha River sometime next month, cementing the hopes of generations of advocates and tribal leaders who fought to make it happen.
With the concrete out, the long-term revival of a legendary wilderness valley in the Olympics can now unfold unfettered after 100 years dammed.
The watershed already is springing back to life from the mountains to the sea: Salmon are swimming and spawning miles above the former Elwha dam site. Alders stand more than head high as the native forest reclaims the former lake beds. There’s a soft, sandy beach at the river mouth, where before there was only bare cobble. And birds, bugs and mammals are feasting on salmon eggs and carcasses as fish once again nourish the watershed.
The Elwha is a rare chance to start over on a grand scale. The $325 million federal project, begun three years ago, has reopened 70 miles of habitat for steelhead and salmon, rebuilt wildlife populations and restored native plants. The river is hard at work with its restored natural flow, rebuilding its plunge pools, log jams and gravel bars.
While it will never be the Eden it was, the Elwha one day likely will be pretty darn close — and sooner than many expected.
“It goes against my deepest notions of how fast ecosystem recovery can possibly happen,” said Christopher Tonra, a research fellow with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., who is tracking the response of dippers, a native, aquatic songbird, to dam removal in the Elwha. “We are all trained, as biologists, to think of things over the long run. I am not saying the Elwha is fully recovered. But it is so mind blowing to me, the numbers of fish, and seeing the birds respond immediately to the salmon being there. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
The dams were built beginning in 1910 for hydropower, but lacked fish passage. It took an act of Congress, passed in 1992, to finally take down Elwha Dam and then Glines Canyon Dam, about eight miles above it.
Unbuild it, and they will come: Salmon have been storming back ever since Elwha Dam was blasted out of the way in March 2012. Taking down Glines Canyon Dam has taken longer, in part because it holds back a larger load of sediment.
Managing the release of about 27 million cubic yards of sediment as the dams come down is why removal has taken so long. There was so much sediment stuck behind the former Glines Canyon Dam alone that, stacked up, the pile would tower more than twice the height of the Empire State Building, notes Jonathan Warrick, of the U.S. Geological Survey.
The dams were lowered notch by notch, allowing the river to naturally flush about half the total sediment load downriver and out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
There have been bumps along the way. A water-treatment plant — the single most expensive part of the project — failed when a critical intake clogged with debris rinsed out by the river, delaying removal by a year while repairs were made.
The tribal hatchery and federal fish-restoration plan, which includes stocking of some hatchery fish, have been a magnet for lawsuits and controversy.
But nature, meanwhile, has carried right on.
Ian Miller, a coastal hazard specialist based in Port Angeles for Washington Sea Grant, has been monitoring the beach at the river mouth.
The surprise to him isn’t the big volume of sediment the Elwha is delivering downstream, but the fact that it is sticking around. “Basically, this is all new land,” Miller said, walking the beach east of the river mouth on a recent visit. “Everything here is less than two years old. You can walk to (sandy) spots on the beach that are 30 feet deep. It is just a dramatically different system.”
A beach that used to be too rocky to comfortably walk on is today used by kids to play soccer.
Meanwhile, fat chinook salmon are cruising up the river. Staff from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife started working the Elwha in July with a gill net to eventually capture 1,600 big Elwha fall chinook. The fish, of both wild and hatchery origin, are taken to stock the next generation of Elwha fall chinook raised in the state rearing channel, used since the 1970s to preserve the unique Elwha strain.
Stars of the river
Working the fast current was a fish rodeo to capture, then quickly take the powerful, thrashing fish from the net unharmed. Long and thick as a thigh, the chinook, the largest in the Puget Sound region, are the celebrities of Elwha River restoration, and a major reason for dam removal.
Elwha fish populations are projected to grow from about 4,000 to 400,000 over the next 20 to 30 years. Salmon already have hatched and migrated up- and downstream of the former Elwha dam site for the first time in a century.
Revegetation — the most visible piece of the Elwha renewal project — also is unfolding dramatically. Already, terraced banks of the former lakes are burgeoning with alder and cottonwood, the gift of seeds carried by the lakes as they gradually were lowered during the drawdown that started dam removal.
Most difficult to revegetate are the cobbly, gravel flats of the lake bed farther upstream, in the former Lake Mills, a land where many a planted Douglas fir and other seedlings have gone to die.
But in other spots, cottonwood seedlings have established so thickly they look like a lawn. Alder trees seeded in 2011 as lake levels dropped now have grown more than head tall. Where there used to be bald sand, goldenrod buzzes with bees, and a young, stocky Nootka rose bush conceals a bird’s nest full of eggs.
In all, more than 500 acres of former lake bed are being replanted, with nearly 60 varieties of native grasses, flowers, woody shrubs and trees from the Elwha Valley through 2018.
Dam removal also is kick-starting broader effects in the ecological systems of the watershed, from its food chain to the home ranges of animals.
Kim Sager-Fradkin, wildlife biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, already has tracked fish-eating otters to parts of the Elwha that salmon have recolonized since dam removal, and documented an increase in the otters’ nutrient levels derived from fish.
John McMillan, a biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries walking the tributaries since dam removal began, said that in the first year he saw salmon carcasses on the riverbank. But now he doesn’t because the otters, bears, cougars, bobcats and mink have learned to take advantage of food where for so many years there was none.
“The ecological relationships between the animals are coming back,” McMillan said. To me, that is such a great feeling.”
Walk the river
Take a walking tour of the Elwha River with Park Service rangers on the former Lake Aldwell. Tours are on Tuesdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. through Sept. 2. The hourlong walks are free, and begin at the former boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road, north off of Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River Bridge. For more information, call 360-565-3130.
The Oregon Department of State Lands cited disruption to waterways and harm to tribal fisheries among its reasons for the refusal, which makes future approval of the port unlikely but still possible if the company pursuing the project files a convincing appeal.
Tom Wood, owner of the Rivertap Restaurant and Pub in The Dalles, Oregon, called the news a “landmark victory for our community, as well as communities across the nation.”
About three years ago, Wood and his son, Aiden, then 9, were salmon fishing on the Columbia River. As they returned to their car, Aiden spotted small clumps of coal near some railroad tracks.
“We brought a pile home and lit them on fire,” Wood recalled. “You know, the fun things you do with coal.”
He soon realized that the coal likely came from the open rail cars that shuttle along the Columbia River to Canadian ports. That recognition helped push him to join with thousands of others across state, economic and political lines who have tried to thwart the proposed increase in the number of these coal trains rolling through the region. The mile-plus-long trains originate at mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana and head west to meet up with Asia-bound ships. Opponents, who have been protesting and signing petitions for a few years now, worry that more coal trains could ultimately lead to problems ranging from local traffic delays and health harms due to air pollution, to faster climate change as a result of more coal-burning overseas.
Proponents of the coal ports, meanwhile, contend that greater exports mean needed jobs and tax revenues for struggling Western towns and Native American reservations.
“We do have to balance the health of our community with the need for commerce,” said Wood. But he argued that the former is more critical in the long term, including for his son’s future. Referring to the permit rejection, he said, “The win is a testament to the power and dedication of countless Northwest families to assure that these dirty, dangerous projects don’t take root for short-term gains.”
The U.S. has seen a steady decline in domestic coal use in recent years thanks to tighter federal regulations and the expanded viability of natural gas and renewable energy. But the rise of coal-hungry economies in China, India and other fast-developing nations offers a promising alternative market for coal companies. If government agencies eventually grant approval to all three export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington, up to 100 million metric tons of the combustible rock per year could soon pass through the Pacific Northwest. The Coyote Island Terminal on the Port of Morrow at Boardman, Oregon, would account for less than 10 million metric tons of that total.
Ambre Energy, the Australian-based company pursuing the project, told The Huffington Post in a statement that it disagrees with Oregon’s “political decision.”
“We are evaluating our next steps and considering the full range of legal and permitting options,” added Liz Fuller, an Ambre Energy spokeswoman.
With the door still open for the Coyote Island Terminal to be approved, as well as for the other two port proposals in Washington state, opponents are voicing somewhat restrained optimism.
“This is a relatively small amount of coal compared to the other proposals,” said KC Golden, senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Climate Solutions. But he added that the formal permit denial is still a “very big deal.”
“It’s a terrific affirmation of what, in some ways, ought to be obvious,” said Golden. “This is a profoundly bad idea for the Northwest and for the world.”
Among the most vocal opponents have been Native American tribes whose reservations lie in the coal trains’ path.
“Yakama Nation will not rest until the entire regional threat posed by the coal industry to our ancestral lands and waters is eradicated,” JoDe Goudy, the Yakama tribal council chairman, said in a statement Monday night.
On Sunday, the Lummi Nation, whose reservation neighbors one of the proposed ports in Washington state, launched a totem pole journey — a road trip with totem pole in tow — that they hope will consolidate tribal opposition to Big Coal and Big Oil.
“Such decisions are few and far between,” the tribe stated in response to Monday’s announcement. “This is important not just for the Yakama and Umatilla but all Indian fishing tribes. Together we can, and will, protect our way of life.”
Meanwhile, there are other tribes that could benefit from coal exports. As HuffPost reported in January after the Lummi Nation’s first totem pole journey, the Crow Nation of rural Montana argues that it desperately needs to develop its coal reserves to lift its people out of poverty.
Dr. Robert Merchant, a pulmonologist in Billings, Montana, who deals with the health problems related to coal mining near his city, acknowledged the dilemma.
“There are a lot of people that would stand to have substantial gain from the extraction industry,” he said. But he also sees the high public costs associated with the industry.
Montana, Oregon and Washington are among Western states battling forest fires this summer and suffering the resulting poor air quality. Scientists warn that such blazes are becoming more frequent and intense with the changing climate and that coal plays a significant role in this shift.
Then there’s the blowback of toxic pollution from Asia’s coal-fired power plants. “Plumes come right across the Pacific,” Merchant said, noting that they can further contaminate the West’s air and water with toxins such as mercury.
Perhaps of most immediate concern to many opposed are the trains, barges and ships themselves, which block roadways for emergency vehicles, belch diesel fumes and blow coal dust. Diesel exhaust is known to worsen conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and may even raise the risk of certain cancers. The extent of the threat from heavy-metal-laden coal dust is less clear, although evidence is building.
This week the federal government’s legislation, The First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA), was made law.
Financial statements and salaries of First Nation council’s were posted on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s website earlier this week. And those councils who refuse to participate will face a court order.
According to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, this is an effort to provide First Nations people with transparency and allow them to hold their elected leaders accountable. In other words, to empower them.
Given the early reactions to the publication of this data, I don’t share the assessment. So what can we expect?
First, we can expect the media to find a handful of chief and councils that pay themselves unjustifiable salaries.
This reporting has already begun and at least one B.C. chief has found himself on national news broadcasts and other national media for consecutive days.
Of course, this information is important to know. But we can also expect the media to do little else. Few will cover the hundreds of chiefs and/or councils that make $10,000 a year. Few will examine the extreme AANDC underfunding this new data reveals.
Few will ask critical questions about the consequences of First Nations (which are often both governments and corporations) disclosing the details of business dealings with current and/or future negotiating partners.
Second, because of the likely superficial media reporting we can expect many to run with the popular “corrupt chief” narrative to shape their desired policy changes.
Many so-called experts on First Nations peoples in the media and politics will generalize to indict all leaders as taxpayer leeches (though the language will be more delicate).
‘With the media identifying the problem of corrupt chiefs and so-called experts proposing assimilatory solutions, there will be confirmation that the Indian problem is the Indian’s own fault’– Hayden King
Certainly we’ll see organizations like The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which spearheaded the legislation in the first place, use the generalization to call for the erosion of treaties, end of “special” Indian status, privatization of reserves, etc. While taxpayer activism is certainly common, it seems to provoke a special kind of fury when involving Indigenous Peoples.
Third, we can probably expect many Canadians to harden their perspectives on First Nations peoples.
With the media likely focusing on the corrupt-chiefs problem and the so-called experts proposing assimilatory solutions, that will be confirmation for many that the Indian problem is the Indian’s own fault.
And since the challenges indigenous people face will be perceived as a self-inflicted suffering, many Canadians will feel absolved of any responsibility to First Nations, and will instead feel permitted to cast judgement and simply wait for civilization to reach the natives.
In short, the transparency act will be an effective tool to solidify apathy and disengagement with indigenous perspectives and ideas.
Fourth, we can probably also expect the federal government to double-down on the unilateral “aboriginal” policy that has been ongoing for some time.
This includesstripping communities of power in areas of social policy, extinguishing rights and title, reducing program resources, andgenerally trying to transform communities into municipalities under provincial jurisdiction.
With the First Nation leadership being stripped of legitimacy, and Canadians oscillating between aloof and angry, much of the opposition to this increasingly transformative trend will be neutralized. The FNFTA may actually grant AANDC greater licence to intervene in the lives of indigenous peoples.
Finally, we can expect First Nations people to use this data to continue to hold their leadership accountable.
The reality is that most communities already have access to this information (and much more) and generally they do not skirt or ignore issues of bad governance.
From the broad Idle No More movement to specific cases like the ongoing Wahta Community Fire in central Ontario (where a Kanien’kehá:ka community shut down its administrative building because the band council wasn’t following transparency rules), the formal and more provocative examples of communities holding leaders accountable and pushing for new (or very old) governance models independent of the Indian Act are numerous.
‘In an era where reconciliation actually means confrontation and our public discourse is often shallow, every new policy, law, court decision, protest and blockade is a struggle to shape the narrative’– Hayden King
All of this is not an argument against the legislation itself or an endorsement of the status quo.
Aside from the obvious absurdity of Canada continuing to dictate to and administer First Nation communities, the content of the legislation is relatively benign. But the consequences may be significant.
In an era where reconciliation seems more to mean confrontation and our public discourse is often shallow, every new policy, law, court decision, protest and blockade is a struggle to shape the narrative.
Despite what Bernard Valcourt claims about the FNFTA, First Nations may find themselves with even less power to create change.
Some tribal leaders and environmental groups say a water-pollution cleanup plan proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee this month is unacceptable because while it tightens the standards on some chemicals discharged to state waters, it keeps the status quo for others.
Inslee is drafting a two-part initiative to update state water-quality standards, to more accurately reflect how much fish people eat, and to propose legislation to attack water pollution at its source. The fish-consumption standards have the effect of setting levels for pollutants in water: The more fish people are assumed to eat, the lower the amount of pollution allowed.
Inslee decided that lowering some standards wouldn’t create a big-enough benefit to human health to justify the economic risk for businesses, said Kelly Susewind, water-quality program manager for the state Department of Ecology.
“The realistic gains on the ground didn’t warrant that concern and disincentive to invest in our state,” Susewind said.
That’s because the rules regulate state permits for dischargers, such as industrial manufacturers and wastewater-treatment plants — but that isn’t where most of the pollution is coming from.
Setting tougher standards for some pollutants would also result in levels too low to detect or manage with existing technology — but would create a regulatory expectation that could cloud future business investment, Susewind said.
“The concern is that we set in motion a chain of events where it is inevitable they can’t comply. If they are worried they will cease to invest in 30 years, they are not going to invest today; that is the long-term picture that caused the uncertainty.”
In the case of PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls, industrial chemicals used as coolants, insulating materials, and lubricants in electric equipment — setting a limit below the existing limit of 170 parts per quadrillion wouldn’t improve people’s health, Susewind said. That’s because most PCBs are entering waterways from other sources, including runoff. “It is not the most effective place, to put the pinch on dischargers,” Susewind said.
The problem is that the Clean Water Act, under which the standards are issued, doesn’t reach beyond so-called point sources: pollution in water discharged from pipes by industries and others regulated by Ecology and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“A lot of our challenge is finding ourselves with only one tool,” said Carol Kraege, who leads toxics reduction at Ecology. “Getting toxics out of our water with just the Clean Water Act is not enough.”
To gain new tools to clean up state waters, Inslee has asked Ecology to put together legislation to expand its authority to ban certain chemicals, to keep them from getting in the water in the first place. The legislation, which is still being drafted, is intended to address so-called non-point sources of pollution.
The governor has said he won’t submit a final water-quality rule to the EPA for approval until after the legislature acts.
Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, which runs the county’s wastewater-treatment plants, said she was encouraged by the governor’s approach. “We have to be focused on outcomes,” True said.
“The thing I was really happy about was he said we can’t just rely on regulating the same old sources if we want to improve water quality. I know it is going to be very challenging to take these issues to the Legislature, but that is where we need to head to have a better outcome.”
The debate now under way arose from the state’s need to update the water-quality standards that address health effects for humans from eating fish. The state’s rules today assume a level of consumption so low — 6.5 grams a day, really just a bite — that it is widely understood to be inadequately protective, especially for tribes and others who eat a lot of fish from local waters.
The standard also incorporates an incremental increase in cancer risk in that level of consumption.
Inslee has proposed greatly increasing the fish-consumption standard in the new rule, to 175 grams per day, a little less than a standard dinner serving. But he also upped the cancer risk, from 1 in 1 million under current law, to 1 in 100,000 in the new standard. That was to avoid imposing tighter standards for some pollutants.
That isn’t good enough for tribal leaders who say they want tougher protection now — for all pollutants, not just some. “Holding the line isn’t good enough,” said Dianne Barton, water-quality coordinator for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.
Counting on the Legislature to grant new authority to Ecology and money to back it up is also a shaky proposition, some said. “That is a big gamble,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that sued the EPA to force Washington to update its standards. Delay, meanwhile, “is more business as usual,” Wilke said.
Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Association of Washington Tribes and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said tribes are going to take their case directly to the feds both at Region 10 EPA and in the EPA administrator’s office in Washington, D.C., and insist no change be made in the cancer risk.
“In our minds, the bar hasn’t moved that much,” Cladoosby said. “It took 100 years to screw up the Salish Sea; hopefully, it won’t take another 100 years to clean it up. But we have to start somewhere.”
American Indian leaders and Native-focused legislators are pushing President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to establish a tribal economic development council made up of actual tribal leaders.
Such a move, say advocates of the seemingly common-sense idea, would illustrate that Obama and his administration are serious about creating an overarching economic plan for Indian country, and it would put more weight behind a series of disjointed initiatives his team has already offered.
They note, too, that the President of late has been willing to face scrutiny from Republicans by expanding his use of executive powers on immigration reform, health care, and other issues, so they wish he would add this pressing area to his agenda. And there’s already a model in place for him to do so, exemplified by his creation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology through executive order in 2010.
“It’s time to diversify the conversation,” says Gary Davis, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, who noted the idea was seriously discussed at the organization’s recently-concluded Washington, D.C.-based Reservation Economic Summit. “We need the Native people who are advancing economic develop in Indian country every single day weighing in, making sure that the proper tribal perspective is being offered.”
Indian leaders know full well that the president has already created a White House Native American Affairs Council, but they widely lament that it is made up mainly of non-Indian agency officials spread throughout the vast administration who don’t have the on-the-ground experience rooted in the realities of tribal economies.
It makes for a good photo op when the administration’s council gets together, Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, has said, and agency officials can therefore say they are focused on tribal economic development, as well as a bevy of other tribal issues. However, given the limited tribal input built in to this system, tribal leaders have feared that the council misses major opportunities to improve struggling reservation economies.
To be fair, the administration and the council have indeed reached out to tribal leaders to solicit their ideas for bold and wide-sweeping improvement. During last year’s White House Tribal Nations Summit, for instance, Obama held a meeting with a small group of Indian leaders who suggested that the federal government encourage more collaboration between private business and tribes by convening a gathering of such entities. Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, said after that presidential meeting, which he attended, that an advantage in having the administration facilitate such an endeavor is that it has power that tribes and Indian organizations lack.
“If the administration backed such a plan, there would be an automatic serious nature to it,” Halbritter said at the time. “Businesses would perhaps feel more obliged to collaborate and to find ways to partner with Indian nations.”
The administration has already made tentative and limited progress in improving reservation economies. During the president’s June trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the White House noted in a press release that the administration has in several instances already partnered with Native communities by granting multi-millions of dollars in funding, by providing increased technical assistance on various federal-tribal programs, and by pushing for legal and regulatory tribal economy-focused improvements.
New initiatives are also in the pipeline, the White House said, noting that the administration wants to remove regulatory barriers to Indian energy and infrastructure development, increase tribal land development opportunities, and make federal data focused on tribal economic development easier to find and use by tribes. Encouraging the use of tax-exempt bonds for tribal economic development, growing Native small businesses, and supporting Indian veterans were also on the agenda.
Brian Patterson, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, says he is supportive of the administration’s efforts to date and its plans for the future. “However,” he adds, “none of this will transform the situation without the full engagement of Indian country as an equal partner.”
Says Chris Stearns, a Native affairs lawyer with Hobbs Straus: “[W]ithout the direct input of tribal leaders, scholars, and activists into federal policy, you tend to wind up with piecemeal fixes that are not linked together in a way that makes them effective.
“I can’t imagine that a Council on Native American Affairs led by the tribes themselves wouldn’t be able to come up with 10 times more than what a roomful of federal officials has been able to do so far,” Stearns adds.
One of the reasons the administration has been reluctant in some cases to solicit stronger tribal input on economic development issues is the fact that many tribal leaders want federal laws that they feel impact their growth relaxed or removed. Progressive laws, like the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), are hindrances to development on many reservations, several tribal leaders have testified before Congress.
“These and other laws create conflicting allegiances for the federal Indian trustee, bogging down tribal development decisions to the point that tribes cannot compete fairly in most private sector markets,” says Philip Banker-Shenk, a Native Affairs lawyer with Holland & Knight. “It may be audacious to think the role of the federal Indian trustee should trump laws like the APA, NEPA, or ESA, but it is no more audacious than the present paralysis caused by how those laws now neuter the federal Indian trusteeship.”
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, is one who believes the administration has been slow in supporting economic self-determination for tribes because that goal often conflicts with its more progressive ideals. For instance, the congressman’s recent Native American Energy Act received tribal support from its conception to its passage in the House as part of a larger bill, yet the administration has opposed it all along the way. The bill, if ever signed into law by the president, could open up many opportunities for tribal energy development – both of the renewable and non-renewable type – yet it would also give tribes more of an ability to challenge NEPA and other regulations that hold them back from such development. Thus, the administration has been opposed—a major source of consternation to tribal advocates who note that Indian oil, gas and construction in aggregate garnered copy5 billion for a select group of tribes in 2013. Many more tribes could be able to benefit if Young’s legislation became law.
“The administration continues to focus on endless discussions, but rarely takes actions,” says Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Young. “Truly promoting economic self-sufficiency for tribes takes more than hosting a tribal summit each year. The administration should actively work with Congress to allow for responsible development of natural resources on tribal lands.”
Such criticism from a Republican is perhaps expected in partisan Washington, but Jon Tester (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA), agrees that the progress of both the administration and current Congress has been too sluggish and not focused on supporting true tribal self-determination.
Tester says that the federal government sometimes holds tribes back from self-determination opportunities, adding that he has tended to see more economic successes from tribes that have been able to take increased responsibility over programs that support their lands and citizens. How to get all tribes to be able to take increased responsibility is one of the major dilemmas of this situation, he says. “Make no mistake, I know how difficult it is,” he adds. “When you’re poor, you’re poor.”
A step in the right direction, Tester says, would be for the president to create a permanent Cabinet-level Native affairs advisor position that could elevate these issues to the highest level of federal government in conjunction with appointing a tribal economic development council to inform such an advisor.
“If in fact this is something that can happen, we will talk about it as a committee, and send a letter off,” Tester says.
Davis, fresh from testifying before SCIA on economic development challenges facing tribes in late-June, says he’d be more than willing to join such a council. “As it is now, I worry we may not be looking as far to the left as we can, nor as far to the right as we can,” he says. “We need to be open-minded, we need to take responsibility, and we need to have a real seat at the table.”
WASHINGTON, DC – The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) applauds President Obama for upholding his ongoing commitment to tribal nations and Native peoples by travelling to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation this Friday, June 13. Since taking office, President Obama has remained steadfast in honoring our nation-to-nation relationship. President Obama has kept his commitment to host the annual White House Tribal Nations Summit in Washington D.C. These summits have facilitated unprecedented engagement between tribal leaders and the President and members of his Cabinet.
At the 2013 White House Tribal Nations Summit, the President announced that he would visit Indian Country himself – a longtime priority of tribal leaders. Friday’s visit to Standing Rock fulfills that promise. This historic visit is the first by a sitting President in over 15 years and makes President Obama only the fourth President in history to ever visit Indian Country.
NCAI expects the President to address the economic development needs of tribal nations and the needs of Native youth. While tribal youth are included in the Administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, this Administration has always known that Native children have specific cultural and education needs that require focused attention.
For this reason, Indian Country has witnessed an unprecedented collaboration between the Secretary Jewell at the Department of the Interior and Secretary Duncan at the Department of Education, to study what is necessary to make sure that all of our Native students – in public schools, tribal schools, and Bureau of Indian Education schools have the tools they need to ensure a strong future for all Native children. In 2013, Secretary Jewell visited the Pueblo of Laguna to see first hand how a tribal education department was improving the quality of schools operations, performance and structure of BIE schools. She witnessed a nation that was engaged and excited to participate in efforts to improve educational outcomes in Indian Country.
It will take visits like this – the agencies working together with tribal governments and national organizations such as the NCAI and the National Indian Education Association to ensure that our students can be the future tribal leaders, teachers, health care workers, and entrepreneurs that our nations and the United States need to thrive for generations to come.
The President’s visit builds on ongoing efforts of his Administration to work closely with tribal nations on policy that affects their citizens. We trust the visit will be a catalyst for more policies that will not only succeed today, but cement the positive relationship between tribal governments and the federal government well into the future. President Obama has made annual summits between our nations in his words, “almost routine.” We trust this will be the continuation of his Administration’s engagement with our nations that makes visits to Indian Country by the President and his Cabinet routine too.
About The National Congress of American Indians:
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information visitwww.ncai.org
On Friday the 13th, President Barack Obama will be visiting tribal Leaders and other tribal members during his visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. In light of this historic day, we know that you in Indian country will be there in person or spirit.
We want to hear from you tomorrow on Twitter.
So, if you want to join us or tweet to us, correspondent @VinceSchilling will be listening and tweeting live from our @IndianCountry twitter account. All day long, we are asking for your comments, pictures, thoughts and tweets.
So whether you are on site in North Dakota, watching coverage in Alaska or Florida or blogging from San Francisco, ICTMN wants to hear your thoughts and see your pictures from the day. We will be retweeting you and might include among the day’s best tweets in our follow up article.